Monthly Archives: January 2023

Follow The Money.


One of my brand planning tricks is to fully understand a business’s financials before I dive into the more touchy-feely world of the brand.  Back in the day (don’t ask) when working at ad shop McCann -Erikson NY, I was asked to be on a task force of AT&T and McCann people. Our chore was to write marketing plans for a number of emerging business services. Collectively we came up with a rigor called 24 Questions: a follow-the-money guide that helped the team understand the balance sheet and the opportunity.

I’ve been using the 24 Questions as part of my brand planning discovery rigor for years.  When you understand how money is made, you tend to have more credibility among company executive — which is important when talking strategy. But really important when talking brand strategy.

When presenting observation about a company’s business, customer base, and sales environment, having data on what is business-winning goes a long way.

So, there is your tip of the week.  Be artistic in your brand strategy but build it on a foundation of financial understanding.



Marko-babble Revisited.


I coined a term “marko-babble” to cover all the gibberish marketers use to try and justify their opinions and decisions.  You’ll know marko-babble when you hear it. It’s a lot of “no there there” reasoning and makes you scratch your head in wonderment.

There’s also a great deal of brand-o-babble out there in the brand planning sphere.  One example I came across recently was the use of the Jungian archetypes.  A brand agency smartly used the idea to sell a strategy project to a university.  Sounds higher ed, no?  Name drop Carl Jung.  Well, the problem was, the brand shop did 500 interviews of students, faculty and staff (good homework, for sure) but it resulted in three clusters of archetypal users or consumer: Supportive Advocate, Experiential Adventurer, and Determined Enthusiast.  Sound like the entire planet to me.  Then they built the strategy off these three groups.

It’s important to understand customer care-abouts. But what the brand shop neglected to do, at least as far as I can, was to include brand good-ats into the equation.  Without a balance of good-ats and care-abouts you are simply pandering to your existing target. And overlooking endemic values that make your brand great.  It’s not a smart growth strategy.

Add to that the fact that the three archetypes, combined, are not particularly discrete and you really water down the value prop.

And that’s no babble. Peace.



Key Brand Indicators.


One of my jobs as a brand planner is to help companies focus. When a brand is focused, consumers can focus.

The opposite of focus in brand planning is The Fruit Cocktail Effect. That’s what happens when you try to promote yourself as too many things. With fruit cocktail, the peach tastes like the pear which tastes like the grape and the pineapple and the cherry. There is no differentiation, it’s just one sugary mess. That’s what happens to brands that don’t focus.

Lots of marketers today talk about KPIs or key performance indicators. They are a great way to manage business. (You can’t manage what you don’t measure.) But in brand planning we are not measuring Excel charts of KPIs, we are managing attitudes, beliefs and biases — and a limited few, at that. For the sake of this discussion let’s call them KBIs or key brand indicators.  To avoid The Fruit Cocktail Effect, What’s The Idea? dictates a One Claim, Three Proof Plank brand strategy. Effectively, measuring four things. 

(One prominent phone company understood it could maintain market share if price perception was within 10% of the nearest competitor. That’s a proof plank. That’s a KBI. And that’s a business winning measure.)  

For more information and elucidation, write



Singularize The Solution.


The brand framework that has worked for so many of my clients is one built around a single solution.

First an exclaimer, there are two kinds of brand planning: Master Brand Planning, which sets the strategy for all brand activity and Everyday Brand Planning, where strategic planners solve tactical, temporal challenges. Whichever your brand planning approach — mine happens to be in master brand planning — there is a new wave planning rigor that lasers in on the problem.  With the main commercial or attitudinal problem in hand, the thinking goes, the solutions can flow freely.  There’s a famous quote often attributed to Einstein “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

This hyper focus on the problem is where I take issue — not with the importance of the problem but with the resulting lack of specificity about the solution.

My brand framework focuses on a single solution.  That solution is supported, proven and seeded in the consumer mind by three proof planks. The most famous and lasting brand strategy for Coca-Cola is “refreshment.” The proof planks for refreshment are: 1. unique kola nut taste, which hits the mouth and throat with a jolt, 2. served icy cold as evidenced by sweating bottle pictures, and 3. (still working on that one.) 

The wood behind the arrow at Whats The Idea? is the solution. A codified, constant pulse of a single solution…supported by 3 proof planks.  When a master brand uses this framework, the design of the work is easier, approvals of the marketing simpler, and muscle memory of the consuming public less complicated.

Problem and solution are critical components of brand planning. But I contend singularizing the solution is the critical job of the brand planner.




The Brand Planner’s Conundrum.


The problem with brand planning consultants is that we are not very good at talking about ourselves.  And, unless you have a full-time job in planning, you need to be selling to be making. It’s a conundrum.

Some consultants are egocentric. Others wall flower-ish. And, of course, there are scads of variations in between. But one thing we share in common is the enjoyment resulting from digging in on other people’s brands. We love exploring.

I am most comfortable talking to people about what I do when sharing observations and insights about brand good-ats and customer care-abouts.  (At its most basic level, distilling care-abouts and good-ats is what brand strategists do.)  Though, put us in a room with marketers and ask us to talk about ourselves and it gets ugly.

Brand planning hither rather than thither is a problem. Especially for consultants. Don’t get me wrong, over time I’ve figured out a few sweet selling points. And I crafted a solid framework to deliver strategy. One that’s easy to understand. But that sausage-making is relatively boring. My cross to bear.

So repeat after me, thither rather than hither.





Selling In 30 Seconds or Less.


I was in a meeting yesterday in which mentors were demonstrating techniques to help early-stage companies build sales and teams. The mentee company founder explained his software company as one that monitored employee workflows with the goal of smoothing them out and making things more efficient and productive. My words not his. His explanation was more cumbersome, acronym filled, and, as is the way with coders, rather technical.

One of the questions I use in my brand strategy practice came to mind for the three mentors during this exercise. It has really helped me over the years when interviewing technical people.  The question was born of work for Capgemini many moons ago. 

It was meant to be asked of salespeople but works for founders.  “If you had only 30 seconds with a CFO, what would you tell him/her about your product in order to get a meeting?  Craft the answer as if it were a cold voice mail.”   

If you have ever spoken with CFOs, you know a couple of things about them.  Numbers are their jam.  They’re revenue and expense driven.  They aren’t big students of the FM (fucking magic) or technology undergirding product management.  They also don’t take kindly to marketing bullshit. So, when crafting your 30 second speech, get the Is-Does right – what the product Is and What the product Does. Explain your key benefit — don’t benefit-shovel. And solve a problem with pent-up demand. You just may get your meeting.




Innovation is a Gift.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA – FEBRUARY 22: Music producer Rick Rubin attends the 2015 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Graydon Carter at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 22, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)

One of the greatest living music producers is Rick Ruben.  His genius cuts across all music types: Rap, country, rock, jazz and some yet to be classified. It is his ear that sets him apart.  He hears things others don’t.

I’m not sure he has the same ear for people, however. In the Avett Brothers documentary May It Last, after a perfect and raw recording of one song, where the room was pin-drop silent, the singer completely drained, Rick’s excited voice bludgeoned the room encouraging everyone toward the next cut.  Both Avetts, awoken from their trance, asked for a minute – walking outside to the Blue Ridge mountains to gather their shit. To revive.

That said, it was the perfect cut and Rick’s fingerprints’ evident.

In an interview this week with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes, Mr. Ruben said “the audience comes last.” “The audience doesn’t know what it wants, it only knows what it’s heard.”  This approach is very Steve Jobsian. I also subscribe to this school of thinking, calling it Beyond the Dashboard Planning.

It’s certainly contrarian.  But Rick Ruben is contrarian.

In Rick’s interview he said about great music “It seems familiar. Yet you don’t know where you’ve heard it before.”

It’s a gift, innovation.


Brand. Strategy. Framework.


One of my favorite definitions of “brand” is “an empty vessel into which we pour meaning.”  It’s a statement about the malleability of brands. But under further scrutiny the definition isn’t 100% accurate — most brands aren’t really empty, are they?  Blaze Pizza has a special crust, sauce, cheese.  Fat Tire beer offers a unique malty taste profile. A Ford Mustang Mach-E is a line extension containing lots of built up and carry-over meaning. Nothing empty about that. And, of course, brand have names. Names which when done right, offer up a view into the product and, hopefully, convey a special value.

It is the job of the brand planner and brand manager to take what exists inside the vessel and enhance it. Refine it. Compliment and strengthen it.  It’s the brand strategy that lets creators and marketers develop and energize the bond between consumers and the brand. It all starts with the brand strategy.

My definition of brand strategy is “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  And to organize you need a framework. Mine is built upon claim and proof. My framework simplifies decision-making, adds direction to the creative process and informs all four Ps of marketing.

Get yourself a vessel. Get yourself a framework. And land on a brand strategy. Chaos be gone.